Rory McIlroy is not only playing for Ireland in China this week, but possibly for the future of the World Cup as well. Certainly, a high-profile win for the young golfing prince would give the 58-year-old competition a better chance of survival.
One of the worst-kept secrets in golf is that, in all likelihood, this will be the final staging of the World Cup in its present guise. The 28 two-man teams (ranging from Australia to Guatemala to Zimbabwe) will play on Hainan Island, with the winners picking up £1.5m. And then a battle will begin to save an event which began as the Canada Cup in 1953 and which, over the years, has been won by the likes of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods.
"The word is out that this is the end but there is optimism the World Cup can be resurrected at a different venue and with different sponsors – a few people in a few countries are interested," a leading figure in the industry told The Independent yesterday. "But this is a hard climate in which to sell any tournament."
The Scottish Open bears witness to that. Despite holding a prime spot in the calendar – the week before the Open – and despite being guaranteed a lot of the game's best players, the event is without a sponsor and looks likely to be funded by the European Tour in the immediate future. And then? "Where's the money going to come from?" wondered Colin Montgomerie this week. Where indeed?
Back at Mission Hills Haikou, the remarkable 10-course complex which is one and a half times the size of Manhattan, McIlroy, the world No 2, is the highest-ranked member of a field which can be considered more impressive than it has been since Woods and Co turned their back on it at the turn of the century. Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland may be the world Nos10 and 48 respectively but it says plenty about the commitment of the US to the World Cup that this looks one of their stronger duos of late.
England are represented by Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, while the South African flag is carried by two recent major winners in Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen. The favourites, however, are McIlroy and Graeme McDowell – both for the marketing men and the bookies.A win would go some way towards replenishing one set of coffers, while emptying the other.
The Ulstermen finished second to the Italian brothers Francesco and Edoardo Molinari the last time the event was staged in 2009 and since then they have both won majors and played starring roles in the Ryder Cup. Their confidence is high. When asked who he fancied for the World Cup, "other than yourself and Rory", McDowell replied, "that pretty much covers it".
The 32-year-old McDowell added: "When you see guys like Palmer and Nicklaus have won it, it puts into perspective what kind of event this is. Rory and I are taking it very seriously and we would certainly love this to be on our resume because it is special and we'd be having our names alongside some very special names if we won."
At a price of around 4-1, McIlroy and McDowell are very short odds and a 33-1 punt on the Scotland partnership (Martin Laird and Stephen Gallagher) seems more attractive. Wales are represented by the duo of Jamie Donaldson and the in-form Rhys Davies.